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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Lunchbox Fandom

April 4, 2019 Archive Insight
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"Monkees" Lunchbox and Thermos, 1967 (THF92313)

Beaver Cleaver may have carried a plain metal lunch box to school, but lunch boxes with pictures on them have been big business since the days of the Leave It to Beaver television show. Since the 1950s, children have been persuading their parents that they absolutely must have a school lunch box sporting their favorite character. For, to show off a Davy Crockett or a Beatles or a Star Wars lunch box to the world (or to your friends, which meant basically the same thing) when these were popular was simply the essence of cool. And, for young children, this is still true today -- only the characters and the lunch box materials have changed.


The first true pictorial lunch box was created in 1950, when a painted image of Hopalong Cassidy was applied to a steel lunch box and matching thermos bottle. In the first year of its production, Nashville, Tennessee manufacturer Aladdin Industries sold an unprecedented 600,000 of these, at a (not inexpensive) retail cost of $2.39.

Three years later, American Thermos introduced a fully lithographed steel lunch box depicting Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Sales of these reached an astonishing 2 1/2 million the first year, and these types of lunch boxes -- with pictures covering all sides -- immediately became the industry standard. The pictorial lunch box industry was off and running, and competition between companies became fierce. Over the next three decades, steel lunch boxes featured dozens of television shows, movies, popular musicians, sports stars, special events, fads, and famous places.

Pictorial lunch boxes made of waterproof vinyl wrapped around cardboard first came on the market in 1959. Their shiny, purse-like qualities lent themselves to pictorial themes marketed to girls, like the highly popular Barbie lunch boxes, introduced in 1961. Unfortunately, these could not stand up to heavy use -- their seams split and their corners crushed easily.

During the 1970s, vocal parents and school administrators began to complain that metal lunch boxes were to blame for students' injuries-enough so that, by 1987, lunch box manufacturers were forced to cease using steel in favor of safer (and cheaper) plastic.

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Hopalong Cassidy, 1950
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William (Bill) Boyd brought this fictional character to life, first at the movies then on television in 1950. "Hoppy" became the first television hero for many American children. This show precedes the major era of television westerns ushered in by Gunsmoke in 1955, when the huge popularity of westerns signaled Americans' nostalgia for a simpler past and their need for clear-cut heroes and villains during an uncertain time.

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Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, 1954
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On television from 1950 to 1955, this early science fiction show was a spin-off of a comic book and teen adventure novel series. The show, which took place in a futuristic world of scientific marvels, was made somewhat believable by the technical expertise of Willy Ley, an associate of Werner von Brau.

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Rocky and Bullwinkle, 1962
(THF92316)
Like The SimpsonsRocky and His Friends disguised adult entertainment in the form of a cartoon. The show aired from 1957 to 1963 during prime time, and with its clever, tongue-in-cheek scripts, it could well be considered the most subversive show about the Cold War of its time. From 1964 to 1973, the show continued under the new name The Bullwinkle Show, and it has since been entertaining children and adults alike through reruns and videos.

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"Sock It To Me," 1968
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Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In
 was a mid-season replacement in 1968, and no one expected it to be very popular. That's probably why its producers were able to experiment with virtually a new format-a rapid-fire pace using video editing and no narrative structure-and a new kind of hip topicality couched in one-liner jokes. Although its novelty is lost to us today -- the one-liners seem hopelessly outdated, even old-fashioned -- catch-phrases like "Sock It to Me" have become instantly recognizable cultural icons, while the show's short skits, slapstick humor, and use of topical material helped to revolutionize television.

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Happy Days,
1976 (THF92322)
A mid-season replacement in 1974, this show had its origins in a 1972 Love, American Style episode and took great advantage of the popularity of the film American Graffiti. The first television show to take place in an era where television had already been invented, this version of the 1950s was embraced especially by young people who had not known the real decade first-hand. The show's true star was "The Fonz," who may have seemed like an unlikely role model but became television's biggest star for several years.

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Sesame Street, 1983 (THF92308)
From the time this show premiered on PBS in 1969, it quickly established itself as the most significant educational program in television history. Envisioned as an entertaining show for preschoolers-especially those from underprivileged backgrounds-to help prepare for school, Sesame Street incorporated the rapid-fire style of both television commercials and television programs like Laugh-In. With its consistently high quality and humor geared toward both children and their parents, this show continues to be extremely popular today.

Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. 

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